What Does 'Company Culture' Actually Mean?
Culture has always fascinated me. It permeates every corner of our societies. It’s something we’re both hyper aware of and we take for granted. It’s abstract, tangible, complex, and multi-layered. Culture matters in a deep and significant way.
When I talk with people about company culture one response I often get is, “But what is it?” Most, if not all of us understand what culture is in a broad sense, and yet it’s one of those concepts that can be difficult to put into words. Particularly when we’re talking about it in a specific context, like business.
There are many definitions and frameworks explaining what culture is. For my purposes - defining company culture - I found Julian Huxley’s (1963) components of culture model helpful, which I’ve adapted, as well as Geert Hoefstede’s (1997) work on the manifestations of culture at different levels of depth.
Based on my research and experience working with small businesses I’ve identified a framework for the components of company culture. This is one way to think about culture and certainly not the only way. It’s important to note that even defining ‘culture’ is cultural because how we define anything is influenced by our worldview. Take what resonates and leave the rest.
3 Pillars of Company Culture
There are three overarching themes, or pillars, of culture I see in business:
Each of these pillars have subcategories. The subcategories I’ve listed aren’t necessarily all the subcategories possible, but they are a place to start.
Pillar 1: Ethos
Ethos is concerned with the beliefs, values, and principles guiding a culture. These can be both conscious and unconscious. Ethos is nonmaterial in nature because it has to do with the abstract systems that determine how people think, feel, and behave in accordance with the culture.
Ethos forms the foundation for the other two pillars, expression and connection.
Examples of ethos in broader culture are: origin stories, heroes, religious/spiritual beliefs, values, principles, unspoken ways of being/knowing/feeling
In company culture, three important subcategories of ethos are:
Values - what does our company stand for?
Purpose - what role does our company play in the lives of the people its impacting?
Worldview - how does the broader culture(s) influence what we do, how we do it, and why we do it?
Pillar 2: Expression
Expression is how the ethos manifests in tangible ways. It’s the easiest component of culture to understand and see because it’s all about the material expression of beliefs and values.
Expression provides a creative outlet to the other two pillars, ethos and connection.
Examples of ethos in broader culture are: language, dress, food, art, music, tools, laws, religious/spiritual practices, rituals/traditions, symbols, money
In company culture, three important subcategories of expression are:
Product / Offer - what do we contribute?
Communication - how do we express ourselves?
Tools & Systems - what are our logistical needs?
Pillar 3: Connection
Connection is about the interpersonal dynamics of a culture. This isn’t limited only to humans, it can also include how we relate to the environment, animals, plants, and the other-than-human. It’s relational in nature because it’s concerned with how the individual relates to itself, how the individual relates to the group, how subgroups relate to each other, and how the culture relates to other cultures.
Connection gives meaning to the other two pillars, ethos and expression.
Examples of ethos in broader culture are: family systems, economic systems, politics, gathering, cross-cultural practices, personal development, land use
In company culture, three important subcategories of connection are:
Team - who do we need on our team and how do we work together?
Customers & Community - who do we serve?
Environment - what relationship do we have with our environment(s)?
Oftentimes people equate company culture with team and HR. But we sell ourselves and our businesses short if that’s where our culture initiatives start and end. Expression is a huge part of what makes a culture instantly recognizable. Ethos is the bedrock for all the decisions we make (whether we’re intentional about it or not). And when we extend connection to our broader communities and environments we create companies that are oriented around more than just profit.
The question is - how do you want your team, customers, and community to experience your company? This is culture work. The better the experience, the more people will talk about it, engage with it, and learn from it.
Thanks for reading Culture of Relations! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
I love the breakdown you shared of smaller components leading into these main areas of culture.